Future Tense

The Golden Age of Telegraph Literature

The 19th-century genre showcased technology anxieties and Catfish-esque storylines.

William John Johnston toured Japan after he gave up on being a telegraph operator
The author’s great-great-grandfather toured Japan after he gave up on being a telegraph operator.

Courtesy of Britt Peterson

The short story “A Centennial-Telegraphic Romance,” which appeared in the 1877 anthology Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, begins quite hopefully for our hero, Sydney Summerville. A Western Union telegraph operator from New York, he’s traveling by train to the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia when he meets a lovely young woman, Eva Marshall, who begins out of nowhere to flirt with him in Morse code. Eva’s parents sit obliviously by as she clicks the window fastener “in her dainty fingers” and Sydney taps back with his pencil. But alas! Several lines of morbid, and forgotten, 19th-century poetry intrude on Sydney’s happiness. He recalls that “Hope’s gayest wreaths are made of earthly flowers”—and instead of telling Eva his real name and address, he leaves her a note with a fake name and the P.O. box of the Western Union office in New York. Then he blames Eva when misunderstandings ensue along their path to marital bliss. (So, men haven’t changed.)

In their tour of the great Machinery Hall at the World’s Fair, Sydney and his lady-love would have both seen Alexander Graham Bell’s newly patented “Telephonic Telegraphic Receiver.” Over the next few decades the telephone would gradually make personal telegraphs obsolete, totally upending the industry. That sense of being at the bleeding edge of technology—Eva’s parents don’t even recognize that she’s transmitting code to Sydney, let alone know how to decipher it—while also the first casualties of obsolescence is part of what makes 19th-century telegraph operators feel so modern now. There’s also the way they talk about romance: something both enabled and thwarted by technology. Sydney is able to woo Eva over their improvised telegraphic channel, something that would have been impossible with her parents listening in. But later he accidentally intercepts a telegram from her to another man, and becomes angrily (and, it turns out, mistakenly) convinced that she is a “full-fledged flirt.”

This story was written by my great-great-grandfather, William John Johnston, a telegraph operator and trade publisher who collected and sold stories, poems, and plays written by and for operators in the 1870s and 1880s as a part of his journalistic enterprise. The style of the writing—as with “A Centennial-Telegraphic Romance”—hasn’t entirely stood up to the test of time. Henry James and Anthony Trollope, among many others, wrote about telegraph operators with a good deal more polish. But there’s something incredibly modern about these amateur stories and the way they handle technology, the influence of corporations, gender, and love in the time of hyperconnection.

Johnston came to New York from Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, as a teenager, probably sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s. He secured an operating job for Western Union and invested $50 in a four-page biweekly paper edited by a few colleagues and called The Operator. When Western Union objected to an (extremely mild) editorial opposing an infamous companywide salary cut known as the “sliding scale,” Johnston ran an open letter in the Jan. 1, 1876, issue tendering his resignation from the company and declaring the paper independent and himself the sole editor and publisher. From that issue on Johnston—then 23, self-educated, a bombastic and sometimes pedantic writer with a fondness for classical flourish—is the only name on the masthead.

Wireless telegraph
A wireless telegraph.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Declaring independence from Western Union in 1876 was no small thing. Western Union was a burgeoning monopolistic giant, controlling 80 percent of U.S. telegraphic traffic by 1880, its corporate profits rising 428 percent between 1870 and 1890, from $1.4 million to $7.4 million adjusted for deflation, according to Edwin Gabler’s study The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900. A royal flush of Gilded Age Wall Street tycoons sat in the company’s boardroom—at their head, after 1881, railroad robber baron Jay Gould.

Western Union headquarters, a gilt-trimmed skyscraper at 195 Broadway, connected New York to California, Texas, and, via the newly laid Atlantic cable, London. In 1883, according to a description in The Operator, 450 telegraphers worked in the palatial, chandelier-draped operating room on the seventh floor, each walled off from his neighbor by thick glass dividers that muffled the constant clacking of keys. One hundred or so were female operators who sat separately in the “Ladies’ Department” (sometimes called the City Department), earning, according to different estimates, 25 to 50 percent less than the men.

The operators at 195 Broadway—and in satellite offices around the city—were, on the whole, young unmarried men, many of them immigrants or country boys who studied Morse code for years to make something of themselves. In its early days, the 1840s­­–1860s, telegraphy had been mythologized as a way to move up in the world. Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison started out as telegraph operators, and Horatio Alger wrote three separate novels about telegraph messenger boys making good.

But about the time Johnston took over The Operator, a new uneasiness was creeping into the industry. Technological innovations that sped up the work and made it harder, salary cuts, destabilizing corporate mergers, and the general economic instability of the era, all made operators more anxious about their own jobs, and more resentful toward their bosses. A story printed in The Operator on April 1, 1875, (placed not far from a matter-of-fact account of a 16-year-old boy “Guillotined by an Elevator” in the Western Union office), describes an old-time telegrapher advising a young kid to stay out of the business. “Take my advice and get a place in a store and stick to it; or enter a lawyer’s office and follow that; or remain at school and get a good education,” he says. “Telegraphing is no business for a man of ambition.”

Johnston, undoubtedly a man of ambition, succeeded as a publisher by capitalizing on the insecurities of telegraphers. One part of this was sidelines he hawked through his classified section, self-improvement tools like “Goodyear’s Pocket Gymnasium,” which was illustrated by drawings of bulky, mustachioed men in tights and women in pinafores and bustled gowns tugging on rubber bands. Regular use would, Johnston wrote, prevent telegraphers from dying of consumption, an illness to which they were particularly prone from long hours in unventilated spaces.

“Goodyear’s Pocket Gymnasium” from The Operator, 1876.

The Operator, New York, January 1879

Johnston also aimed at the anxieties and passions of telegraph operators with literature. The Operator had always run stories and poems in between the gossip, news, and editorials, like other 19th-century trade publications and contemporary journals for telegraph operators. (Yes, there were multiple contemporary journals for telegraph operators.) But Johnston’s innovation was to begin collecting and selling the fiction and poetry in anthologies. The goal, he wrote in the introduction to his second collection, Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, was to give “telegraphy a literature of its own.”

Lightning flashes and electric dashes
Fourth of July on the telephone from Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes.

Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, New York, 1877

Johnston’s authors generally seem to have been operators themselves or connected to the industry in another way. Some were women, like Ella Cheever Thayer, a Boston telegraph operator and suffragette playwright, and Lida Churchill, who also wrote spiritual works. Others were well-known telegraph writers at the time, like J.D. Reid, the first telegraph historian, or journalists like Joseph Christie or Ralph W. Pope. The literature includes poems, plays, maxims, stories written in “colored” or “Jewish” dialects, and electrical myths and legends (the lurid story of a lightning bolt that “violated the sanctity of a servant maid’s room”).

Romance along the wire is a major theme. The telegraph office was an exciting, if often frustrating place for women to find skilled work in the 19th century. Many women ran offices and worked alongside men as “first-class” operators. This brought men and women into contact on a semi-equal footing and—with the added thrill of telegraphic anonymity—enabled flirtation, misunderstandings, betrayal, and even occasional lasting love, at least if the many marriages reported between operators are any measure.

Many of the romantic stories in The Operator, however, read like truly disastrous episodes of Catfish. After Paul’s object of telegraphic flirtation in “A Slight Mistake” turns out to be stout and old, he hides under an assumed name and “never [again] speaks to anyone on the wire unless the conversation is purely of a business nature.” In one of the many quite racist stories in the literature, “Love Struck by Lightning,” a female operator flirts with operator Elijah and eventually tricks him into kissing someone he thinks is her, but is actually Dinah, “a speckable cullered lady.” Disgusted, he ends up “a confirmed bachelor.” Rena poses as a man on the wire in the gender-bending “Playing With Fire,” only to find out that her supposedly female sweetheart is actually a dashing young gent. Still she refuses him and dies “a few years later.” Hammie, in “Hamilton Doless,” who discovers that his intended is already spoken for, dies “a few months after, another victim to ‘the tender passion.’ ”

The progress of the 19th century - the telegraph, 1876
An illustration of a telegraph operator at work from 1876.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Then there’s Thayer’s novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which Johnston published first in 1880. Nattie and Clem, two operators, flirt along the wires but are thwarted by their own clumsy physical presences when they meet in person. (As one telegraphic lover complains in a different story, “To speak over the wire was bliss, but to speak face to face, misery.”) They find it easier to continue their romance in dots and dashes and set up a private wire between their two rooms in the same lodging house. “It is nicer talking on the wire, isn’t it?” Clem remarks.

When it comes to politics, Johnston’s telegraph fiction toggles between social Darwinistic conservatism and sympathy with the industry’s labor wing, which pitted itself against the unregulated ambitions of Western Union and often addressed very modern issues. Johnston himself seems to have most strongly believed that telegraph operators had to take responsibility for their future instead of complaining. “In our opinion the great trouble with this country is that the people have lost courage, their energies are paralyzed and their characteristic ‘go-aheaditiveness’ forgotten,” he wrote in February 1877.

Lightning flashes and electric dashes
“Ye Telephonists of 1877, Harmonious Internal Working” from Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes.

Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, New York, 1877

Story after story in The Operator extols telegraphy’s native “go-aheaditiveness,” ignoring the labor issues brewing in the 1870s and ’80s. Tales like “Wives for Two; or Joe’s Little Joke” and “The Vow of the Six Telegraph Operators” express a deep and sentimental nostalgia for the glory days before the Civil War, when “boomer” telegraph operators connected America’s new states, busting out West along with the railroads like electrifying pioneers.

But some of The Operator’s stories reveal more complicated truths. An anonymous sketch called “A Reminiscence,” for example, offers a sardonic retelling of Western Union’s “sliding scale” salary cuts of 1876: “the company’s very reluctant resolution to reduce salaries.” There’s also the satiric drama first published serially in The Operator in June 1876, “The Carnival of Oshkosh: A Tragedy in Three Acts.” “Oshkosh” is based on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with Caesar’s part embodied by a skinflint Western Union supervisor. The operators at first try to kill Caesar by sloshing paraffin across the steps: “Yes—so that Caesar may enjoy a slice of this same sliding scale / When coming down the stairs.” Then Brutus beats him to death with various office implements and everyone dies in a bloody battle fought with swords dipped in the battery jar. It’s a nihilistic look at a doomed business, in which not even the oppressed operators are heroic, and one of the more honest attempts to grapple with how the company’s decisions were affecting its workers.

Illustration for The Carnival of Oshkosh, the satiric play based on Caesar, from Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, the best collection of telegraph fiction.
Illustration for “The Carnival of Oshkosh” from Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes.

Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes, New York, 1877

In the early 1880s, relations between operators and Western Union grew increasingly tense, and Johnston’s ambivalent politics started to wear thin with some of his readers. By that time, Johnston and his little magazine had both come a long way. Page counts and subscription numbers (at least by Johnston’s own account) were climbing steadily. Johnston was able to marry his landlord’s daughter, settle in Greenwich, Connecticut, and start having children. In May 1883, he split the magazine into two, creating a more technical scientific weekly, The Electrical World. Many of his old readers complained that he had lost sight of their interests. Some of those complaining were probably members of the Brotherhood of Telegraphers, a group that—while Johnston urged caution in the pages of The Operator—orchestrated a strike against Western Union in the summer of 1883, one of the demands being that female operators receive equal pay for equal work.

Despite a valiant and mostly well-organized effort, the strike ended quickly and disastrously for the Brotherhood, with scabs called in and many strikers losing their positions. And the golden age of telegraph fiction ended along with the strike. The Operator did not long outlive 1883, as many of Johnston’s more lucrative advertisers jumped to The Electrical World, leaving his former flagship bare and thin. Johnston’s writers published elsewhere, but there were fewer outlets, and perhaps less appetite for the romance of telegraphy.

Johnston’s new venture, The Electrical World, published Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, but it didn’t endure too long either. In 1890, his star editor Thomas Commerford Martin launched a coup and absconded with all of the staff, beginning a decline in The Electrical World’s fortunes that ended with its sale to McGraw-Hill in 1899. Out of a job, still only 46, Johnston dumped his family (he now had a second wife and eight children) in Greenwich and went on a world tour.* He visited Japan, where he posed for a photo in a long moustache, peacock-print kimono, and fan, looking like an Edward Gorey illustration; China, where he traveled by donkey to the Great Wall; Taiwan, where he tagged along with a German expedition to ferret out a tribe of headhunters; and Manila, where he collided with the Philippine-American War. He then returned to the United States, where he lived out his final years as a publisher of highly dull trade magazines like Mining and Metallurgy.

One of Johnston’s own short stories was a morbid little meditation called “Some Grave Thoughts.” It begins, “When you are dead, what then? Will the deafening clatter of the little busy instruments at 195 or 135 Broadway die away? … When I am dead … New York will not know it, or knowing it will forget it in an hour, and I shall not be missed.” By the time he died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage in 1907, the old-time operator was an antiquated figure indeed. Just a few years later, the teletype machine was introduced, and “the little busy instruments” began to clatter automatically, at twice the speed.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

*Correction, Nov. 12, 2014: This article originally misstated that Johnston had seven children. He had eight. (Return.)